Study Guide

Psychoanalysis Basics

  • Beginnings

    If you've seen A Dangerous Method, then you already have some sense of the (in)auspicious beginnings of psychoanalysis. Freud demanded fierce loyalty and was frequently and famously threatened by rival upstarts like Carl Jung. As he worked to institutionalize psychoanalysis, all this drama caused the dude a lot of setbacks.

    The good doctor—whom poet H. D. would later call a "blameless physician"—was branded a charlatan by many of his contemporaries. These Doubting Thomases easily dismissed Freud's would-be scientific theories as speculative nonsense, or worse.

    Freud took pains to distinguish his own practice from occult techniques like hypnosis and other forms of "suggestion," but the specter of the occult kept coming back to haunt the poor Dr. F. His movement had a hard time shedding its reputation as hippy dippy, hocus pocus.

    You might say that people kept putting the psychics back in psychoanalysis. Ba-dum-tshhh.

    Meanwhile, psychoanalytic theories of child sexuality and adult ambivalence violated Europe's still-Victorian sense of propriety. From the perspective of the morally upright, Freud's so-called science looked totally corrupt. Like, shut-your-children-in-the-house corrupt.

    It took time for Freud's notion of the unconscious to be accepted. It was never accepted as gospel truth or a miracle cure, mind you. But people at least got into it as a compelling set of workable hypotheses that could teach students and sad people alike about the dark depths of the mind and soul.

    And by the time Freud published his reflections on the First World War in 1915, psychoanalysis was widely acknowledged as pretty awesome. Scholars thought it offered insight into collective as well as individual history.

    Theorists and clinicians—including practitioners of psychoanalysis, and there are some of those around—continue to contest Freud's ideas, of course. But psychoanalysis is here to stay. Perhaps it's not understood as the "science" that Freud desperately wanted it to be.

    Still, it's survived as an intellectual tradition and set of interpretive techniques capable of deepening our understanding of texts and people alike. Now go out there and make Papa Freud proud with your self-awareness.

  • Big Players

    You can already tell that Freud looms large in psychoanalysis. He is larger-than-life, in fact. This "Father" of psychoanalysis wrote with a breadth, depth, clarity, and brilliance that made any later practitioner of psychoanalysis shake in his boots.

    That said, Father Freud invented the Oedipus complex. He thought that the fantasy of killing your father was a universal one. That everyone wanted to do away with Dad.

    He also wrote in texts like Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism about "the murder of the primal father." And like a paranoid patient, he kept imagining that he would be overthrown by the band of sons whom he had gathered around him.

    By the way, he appointed his daughter, Anna Freud, head of the movement. Dr. Freud even called her "his Antigone." But that's another story.

    Just as he feared, Freud's heirs have qualified his ideas—even if they haven't killed him off once and for all. Post-Freudian psychoanalysis has seen the emergence of schools and approaches too numerous to list here. But its heaviest hitters and their greatest hits include:

    Don't Kiss, Make Up: Melanie Klein

    Like Anna Freud, Melanie Klein had an interest in child psychoanalysis. And with Sigmund, Klein shared a determination to learn as much as possible about adult life from the experiences of the youngest and most helpless humans.

    It wasn't all (theoretical) roses and sunshine between her and the Freuds, though. She broke with them in several key respects, and definitely made her own mark in the theoretical canon.

    Klein thought that infants weren't just perverse—teehee—but also aggressive. According to her, the little kiddies are filled with violent and even "murderous" urges for which they later strive to atone. Or, "repair."

    For Klein, the movement back and forth between destructive and reparative impulses is universal. The aim of psychoanalysis, then, was to provide a space in which violent tendencies would be accommodated. So, she wanted it to be safe to lash out at your analyst, or even throw tantrums. (At least your therapist won't make you apologize in the morning.)

    Mizz Klein thought that getting all of this angst out would help us repair ourselves. So, basically: love could be made more viable and lasting, if hate was acknowledged openly.

    In this sense, Klein was a key theorist of ambivalence. So she really loved her dear old (School of Thought) Daddy after all. Thanks for the legacy, Freud.

    Klein had a pretty big impact in lit crit, too. Her texts have been widely cited by theorists like Spivak, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

    Hold On: D.W. Winnicott

    Another child psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, thought hate was central to human experience as well. He believed that to deny hate was dangerous and "sentimental." Like a good romantic comedy, we guess.

    Winnicott is best known for his ideas about play, which have also been among his key contributions to psychoanalytic literary criticism. For Winnicott, the ability to play is by no means given or automatic. Play is risky, since it involves trusting enough in one's environment to leave that environment behind.

    Children—and adults, for that matter—whose immediate worlds are not "good-enough," not safe, protecting, or "holding" enough, lack the capacity really to play. Like: why would you hop onto a swing if your Mommy never held you when you fell down?

    Winnicott's brand of psychoanalysis aimed to strengthen the capacity for play in his patients, whatever their age. Without this ability, life becomes unbearable. (We have to agree.)

    Play is why Winnicott thought literary culture and other arts were so central to human experience. These super fun things provided room for play and other human trickery.

    Watch Out: Jacques Lacan

    All the way across the English Channel, our buddy Jacques Lacan was busy developing much less sunny theories. Indeed, Lacan is often numbered among the most difficult of all difficult theorists. The Frenchman's early work with psychotic patients gave way, after his encounter with structural linguistics, to a brand of psychoanalytic theory that looked more philosophical than clinical.

    Why was he as into complexity like pigs are into mud? We're not entirely sure. But it may have been because, in a series of heady and highly fashionable Parisian seminars, Lacan engaged with the most dauntingly difficult philosophies/philosophers of his day.

    Lacan thought psychoanalysis should put patients in touch with their deepest desires. But don't go getting any wild ideas; he didn't want you to fulfill all of those desires. Instead, Lacanian psychoanalysis encouraged (or, um forced) patients to face the impossibility of getting everything they ever wanted.

    If all this sounds kind of cruel, well. It is. Lacan was always making the students in his seminars feel stupid; he was something of a sadist that way, as well as a diva.

    And when it came to his patients, there are all kinds of stories about what a weirdo he was. He would show up half an hour late to a session, then leave after five minutes, declaring that his day's work was done.

    There was nothing patients could do to protest, since, like Freud before him, this Father always knew best. It's okay if you don't wish you could have been there, with Dr. L. We don't either.

    Say What, Mom: Jean Laplanche

    Another French psychoanalyst, the kinder and gentler Jean Laplanche, has been important for all kinds of thinkers. Butler, for example, has dug into his work.

    Anyways, Laplanche is best known for having riffed on Freud's "seduction theory." This sexy-sounding theory tries to unpack how infants make sense of what their mothers are consciously (and unconsciously) conveying to them. We totally get it; our moms can be pretty hard to read, too.

    Since literary texts can also be understood to give off "enigmatic signs"—signs whose significance us readers will never fully understand—Laplanche's theories can be helpful for thinking about the relationship between readers and texts as well. Huzzah.

    Laplanche was also into transference. By that, he meant how patients project onto the analyst all kinds of prior experiences. When you're sittin' on that therapist's couch, you might turn the analyst into a parent, sibling, lover, or friend.

    Using psychoanalytic models to understand how readers interact with literary texts allows us to ask whether similar, "transferential" dynamics operate there as well. Hm. This psychoanalysis business really is a pretty saucy theory.

    You might consider how much of what you think you understand of a text is actually just you reading a lot of stuff into that text. You know, through unconscious projection. This does not mean that we can only ever see ourselves reflected in great books.

    But it does mean that good readers must recognize their roles as sassy partners-in-crime in the creating the literary canon.

  • Key Debates

    You have heard about how hard Freud had to fight to get his theory recognized as a theory. Before there could be debates, there were dismissals. And more dismissals.

    These lasted for a long time. They can even be heard to echo when hard-line Marxist critics or old-school proponents of the New Criticism (there are a few of them still around, in tweed jackets with elbow patches, of course) characterize psychoanalytic reading as, in effect, piles of poo.

    But to cast psychoanalysis aside entirely is to ignore all of the rich and strange conversations that have happened, and are still happening, within psychoanalytic theory. First there was the falling-out between Freud and Jung, shown in A Dangerous Method.

    More recently there have been quarrels between Lacan and his followers, on the one hand, and those labeled "ego psychologists," on the other. Slap the word "ego" in front of anything, and you know it's serious.

    Freud vs. Jung

    Freud and Jung were once super tight. Jung was one of Freud's most promising and once-beloved disciples. But Freud thought this dude's interest in the "collective unconscious" would invite more skepticism and scorn. And frankly, Freud was sick of not being taken seriously.

    Jung was into occult phenomena and religious symbolism. And those interests, as we've said, were thought to be either very silly or very dangerous in their day. So Freud didn't want his buddy Jung to undermine what little credibility psychoanalysis had gained as a science.

    Like a cold-hearted psycho(analyst), he left Jung by the side of the (theoretical) road.

    Jung's theories have gained a lot of popularity over time, though. And not just among tarot card readers and other occultists. He's kind of a hero to many writers of popular psychology/self-help books.

    However, his stuff tends to be ignored by literary theorists who draw on psychoanalysis to advance their arguments. Freud won this round, it would seem.

    Freud and Lacan vs. the "Ego Psychologists"

    Hey, remember that time Lacan gave a bunch of snazzy seminars in postwar Paris? Well, that initiated what Dr. L himself called a "return to Freud." Obviously, the two were pretty into each other, then.

    Lacan wanted to reestablish the radical nature of Freud's writings, and especially to rescue these writings from the American tradition of "ego psychology." Inspired by Anna Freud, these ego psychologists, as Lacan disdainfully called them, wanted to strengthen the ego. Not teach us how to hold our deep-seated desires lightly.

    As a result, these "ego psychologists" viewed psychoanalysis as counter-productive. They thought it was just a tool for helping people to adapt to societal norms. (FYI, mental health activists still make this argument today; not everyone believes they should go to therapy in order to learn how to live more peacefully and felicitously within the dominant paradigm.)

    But Lacan wasn't having any of that. He thought that there was more to be learned from analysis than the knowledge of how to fit in. Adaptation to prevailing societal standards—"normalization"—was never what Freud wanted out of psychoanalysis, Lacan argued.

    And Dr. L wanted to be true to Freud's teaching. He advocated for helping patients and students to face the truths of their desires, however frightening those truths may be.

    Some of Lacan's most prominent readers, during and after the revolutionary events of 1968, drew on his theories in the critique of ideology. The work of the committed Lacanian Slavoj Zizek, for example, attests to the ongoing relationship between psychoanalytic theory and radical politics.

    If Lacan is truly Freud's true heir, then we can only conclude that Freud won this round as well… through his French surrogate. Way to reach through the ages and sculpt history, Dr. Freud.

  • State of the Theory

    There's no denying that psychoanalytic theory has taken some hits when it comes to hipness. First, it was discredited as a science. In fact, many people never even believed it was a science at all.

    And now, psychoanalysis has fallen into disfavor in literary critical circles. We're past those heady days of Lacan's seminars in Paris. But some theorists do continue to work day and night to keep the Freudian dream alive—and to make sure that The Interpretation of Dreams keeps being assigned in classrooms around the world.

    Clearly, Freud has influenced many key contemporary theorists whose works we've already come across: your frenemies Derrida, Spivak, Butler, Sedgwick, and Zizek, among others. But psychoanalysis has also been central to entire subfields of theory, including film theory—especially its feminist variants—and queer theory.

    Kaja Silverman is one key name associated with psychoanalytic film theory, and Leo Bersani stands out as the most Freudian of queer theorists. An entire generation of contemporary queer theorists also still looks to Freud in work on melancholia; check out the writing of David Eng and Heather Love for two examples.

    Another whole subfield, known as trauma theory, has also arisen. This movement is led by Cathy Caruth and others who took as their point of departure Freud's theorization of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

    But we'll spare you the whole roll call and simply say again what we've said before. (If he were reading over our shoulder, Freud might detect in our writing a "compulsion to repeat.") Freud's texts are required reading and are likely to remain required.

    They're read over and over again. And they're not treated like artifacts of a curious way of thinking, unearthed from a distant past. Instead, they're used for ongoing engagement, and interrogation.

    Plus, texts of Freud's followers—whether they are Kleinian or Lacanian, Zizekian or Laplanchian—continue to speak to critics. Anyone trying to make sense of contemporary culture finds valuable resources in psychoanalysis. This is, after all, a culture that Freud helped to create.

    Think of it this way: he put the sex in text way before sexting was a thing.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    Lit's a lot.

    In psychoanalytic theory, literature is the complex of crazy images that make up the "work" of any dream. It's also more than meets the eye; like a good dream, it's rich with meaning and insight about how people work.

    Literature, go ahead and be pleased with yourself: you're kind of a big deal. And let's be honest: you're kind of saucy, too.

    You know how psychoanalysts are all into their ideas about the repression of our deep-seated desires and whatnot. So, novels are the place where all kinds of cultural fantasies and otherwise censored wishes get airtime. Truths that don't normally get to see the light of day in polite society will come out in unconscious bursts, say psychoanalysts, in the literary text.

    A reader's work in engaging with a text is therefore more than an exercise in diagnosing some characters' or authors' weaknesses. Psychoanalytic critics tap into the reserves of insight stored up in books about what makes our societies tick.

    And, ideally, these analytic revelations are not merely static knowledge about what this or that author thought or felt at this or that time. They serve up some dynamic truth bombs that help us to live better, whenever and wherever we happen to be.

    What is an author?

    First and foremost, the author is never, ever master of her literary house. Just as a patient who sits on a therapist's couch will often inadvertently reveal her deepest secrets, texts are always packed with symbols that have slipped out of the author's unconscious mind.

    An author is also never just "an author." According to psychoanalytic lit critics, when an author writes, he gives voice to dreams and fears that are collective. They're not only reflected of individual desires.

    An author is therefore like many people at once. When she puts pen to paper, the author inevitably says more than she means to say—not only about herself, but about history, art, culture, and oppressive nature of societal norms. And that's where the reader steps in.

    What is a reader?

    Readers always bring their own hosts of experiences to a text. Their own panoply of memories, wishes, fears, fantasies, resistances, loves and hates, and desires. So a reader is a whole new set of psychic material that engages with what's been written in order to create a new understanding of the text, and of people at large.

    We might even call the reader, as psychoanalysis imagines him, a desire machine. Of course, she sees herself in the text, and she sees a whole lot of other things too.

    And just like an analyst can never offer you one "objective" interpretation of your dreams, no reader can hope to offer a final and "official" interpretation of a text. Any interpretation is a dynamic and unpredictable "meeting of minds": a grudge match between the reader's psychic life and the traces of the author's psychic life that are in the text.

    Yowza. That's not what your sweet old high school English prepared you for when you read Hamlet, was it?